Alissa Quart is sitting at a café on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in direct sunlight on a blazing Indian summer afternoon wearing sunglasses, a coat, drinking a cup of hot coffee - one can almost see waves of heat rising from her body. Alissa is literally sizzling. Former media columnist for The Independent, she is now an author, a social commentator, a marketing critic, an observer and, according to her press package, a prodigy.
"Oh stop with the prodigy stuff," she says lowering her Sophia Loren-esque shades, revealing long lashes and darting eyes. "Blame that on my publicist. She was the one who decided I was a prodigy."
Never mind that Quart, 34, who wrote a novel at the age of 7, is now teaching at Columbia University's prestigious journalism school and has already published two critically acclaimed critiques of marketing culture and is working on a third. Basically, she's already poised to become the next Malcolm Gladwell.
"My publicist has called me many things but definitely not that," she says, laughing. "Just look at the hair."
Indeed, Gladwell tends to be a cheerleader, while Quart is more like the class troublemaker. She's a critic in the true sense of the word, and her work is growing in influence, not only because she spares no fools, but she also shrewdly anticipates trends rather than simply describing them. Her last book Hot House Kids identified a phenomenon she labeled the "Baby Genius Edutainment Complex," taking aim at educational DVD packages like Baby Prodigy and Baby Einstein and presciently declared that their claims of creating gifted children were not only specious but dangerous. One year after Hot House came out, President Bush, in his annual State of the Union address, paid tribute to a few so-called everyday American heroes including Julie Aigner-Clark, founder of The Baby Einstein Company.
The next day, pundits blasted our beleaguered stumbler-in-chief not only for transparently promoting the wife of a Republican donor (William E. Clark, Aigner-Clark's husband, contributed to Bush's campaigns), but also for lending credence to the dubious science of Baby Einstein products. Journalists trotted out Quart's Eisenhower-inspired "edutainment complex" coinage, and quoted liberally from Hot House. Her book was in vogue, and she became the go-to authority on the pernicious "giftedness industry."
Quart's Hot Houseprognostications were later corroborated by The Journal of Pediatrics, which published the results of a study done at the University of Washington on the effects of "baby DVDs/videos." The study concluded that infants 8 to 16 months old exposed to Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby videos scored lower than average on standard language-development tests.
Quart describes herself as a recovering "hot house kid," who was raised by her parents to succeed. "Imagination is the best part of being a child," she says. "Why would we want to structure imagination? It will be removed anyway when you grow up."
Thankfully, Quart survived her "hot house years" with her marbles intact. Her first book, Branded, was a spirited, clever critique of "teen branding" - it fit neatly in the tradition of Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders and Naomi Klein's No Logo. The book opens with a cringing account of the Golden Marbles Awards, the now thankfully defunct Madison Avenue backslapper that toasted creatives and child psychologists for their advertising and marketing prowess aimed at the "kids-marketplace."
"Kids are the most powerful sector of the market," an agency attendee is quoted as saying in the devastating first paragraph of the book. "And we should take advantage of them."
Quart's book - as well as persistent haranguing by child-protection lobbies - helped dash the Marble awards. So who is her next victim?
In her follow-up to Hot House, which she is writing now, Quart promises to play it cool. Although she confesses, "I love satire and cultural criticism and ridicule." And she says, "I'm actually a frustrated stand-up comedian. I just love mixing politics and comedy."
Consider yourselves warned.
Richard Linnett is director of entertainment marketing at Fathom Communications. (firstname.lastname@example.org)